The endangered monarch butterflies are back in Washington DC. The calla lilies are in bloom again. The cherry blossoms will bloom early and last all year. Recently silent songbirds have been practicing their chorales.
Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the 78-year-old former also-ran who sometimes has trouble remembering what century he’s in (or at least how he’s supposed to act in it), has emerged as the most unlikely emblem of this most bizarre year in our nation’s history.
“He is,” intoned Cardinal Wilting Gentry of Washington, “the Second Coming of the Messiah.”
Forestalling objections from those who pointed out troubling elements of the president-elect’s past, from his handling of Professor Anita Hill’s testimony against Justice Clarence Thomas, to his authorship of the 1994 Mass Incarceration Act, the cardinal insisted, “God moves in mysterious ways.”
A tree then moved abruptly into Wilting’s path and he fell prostrate to the pavement. Undeterred, he pointed to three signs from above indicating that the new administration has God’s blessing:
— The convergence of Jupiter and Saturn came and went without any suicide cults popping up;
— Jeff Bezos nearly doubled his wealth in the last seven months, from a barely-making-it $113 billion to a pretty respectable $203 billion. “Some might say this has to do with Amazon’s domination of the on-demand delivery market during shelter-in-place,” Wilting acknowledged. “But his fortunes began to climb in March, just as Biden rose from the ashes. Coincidence? I think not!”
— Antacids, such as Tums and Pepcid have disappeared from pharmacy shelves. “That proves that anxiety is in the past,” Wilting said. “Hindsight is about to be 2020.”
To prove the last point, the president-elect turned his trademark prescription sunglasses around to the back of his head.
Economist Melting Freedom stepped forward and whispered into the cardinal’s ear, but Wilting waved him aside brusquely. “Stop calling me ‘de-manned,’” the cardinal said, adjusting his frock. “You don’t get to be anti-gay. That’s my job.”
Gay Shame radical queer group extraordinary, a virus in the system, has been steadily organizing throughout this cursed pandemic. Resorting to online meetings, foregoing the pleasures of the sardonically funny in person meetings, Gay Shame has been particularly focused and creative. The Gay Shame twitter has been acerbic, bitter and enraged, calling out the white supremacy of the gentrifiers and the hypocrisy of the mayor and the so called progressive san francisco board of stupervisors. There have been exquisitely beautiful revolutionary fliers circulated online. Gay Shame has been producing dramatic Podcasts, featuring the Marys’ screaming desires for abolition of police and prisons, calling out movement cooptation, expansion of mental health conservatorship aimed at disappearing the unhoused, and delving into reparations focusing on the theft of indigenous land and slavery, and emphasizing the murder of Black transwomen
Early in the pandemic people responded with a specific mutual aid campaign to give money to unhoused people called Cash Not Conservatorship, and also raised money to provide quarters for the laundry machines in an SF single room occupancy hotel where people were left to fend for themselves. Gay Shame people participated in Defund the SF police and Hotels not Hospitals actions. The meetings remain open to new people with the exception of yimbys or cops.
Gay Shame called an action on October 30th named the Night of the Living Next Door. The chant was HEX THE CONDOS CURSE THE COPS GENTRIFIERS OFF THE BLOCK. In keeping with the creepy nature of halloween people came in costume, of their favorite gentrifiers, a gruesome white gentrifier couple with an icky baby doll, a wicked nun, a green next door monster, a coopted anarchist yimby The action assembled at 24th and Mission street at the BART plaza, a strange macabre scene, the plaza reclaimed as our public space filled with wild costumes, people greeting each other ever so carefully, masked and distant, yet so thrilled to be there in the night, defying the social disorder of capitalism and patriarchy. Kate and Julie from LAGAI Queer Insurrection produced ghoulish propaganda projections on a huge graffitied wall adjacent to the BART plaza. National Lawyers Guild sent observers and we had a cool queer medic van from Queers United in Community Care (QUICC) to support us.
The plan was take the street through the Mission stopping at several key heinous places of gentrifier violence against the people, beginning with paprilka on 24th street, a yuppie restaurant known for its vitriolic racism. We spread out through the eerily covid quiet city street about one hundred militant strong, chanting down mission with radical music sounding from a bicycle sound system, classically including “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” First stop was 22nd street at the site of the burned out building, likely the result of landlord arson, one person dead, the rest of rent control tenants displaced forever. This dead lot abuts the obscenely expensive vida condos built in the center of this latinx community sold to techies wanting to live in urban grooviness, shuttled on giant google luxury buses to their tech campuses in silicon valley (except WFH during the covid). The march turned at 21st street to Valencia where we marched past the upscale outside dining which covid has opportunistically expanded. These tony restaurants have been claiming public space for years making pseudo parklets, from which they hound unhoused people. Now these invidious bourgeois eateries have extended out to the streets with bubbles of plastic and plexiglass filled with revelers in a time of death and destruction. These are the people basking in their entitlement and privilege, who work from home sheltered from covid in luxury condos, oblivious to work done by often black and brown “essential workers” who have no choice but to ride transportation and go to workplaces, exposed and unprotected from the virus. These self-serving elites harass and hate on unhoused people displaced by the condos out to the streets.
The demonstration took on a weird Fellini film like quality as we walked through this nightmare scape, we: vocal angry costumed, with banners, somewhat ragtail, catcalling, chanting; fancy diners: bemused, confused, slightly nervous not sure if we were the revolution or entertainment. They took lots of cellphone selfies with us as backdrop. We continued on past the notorious mission police bunkeresque station, barricaded but notably and oddly silent. Clearly the police had decided to leave us alone, even unresponsive to some loud vigorous banging on the doors. From there we moved to the manny’s, possibly the world’s most annoying gentrifier wine bar, object of a year long weekly boycott action calling out manny’s slimy pretense at creating community venue, trying to control progressive discourse and in addition being a zionist. This struggle underscored the relationship with displacing the local mission community with u.s.-backed israeli colonization/occupation of Palestine. Finally we ended at the 16th Street BART station plaza, next to the site of the planned “monster in the mission”, a 330 unit condo building, at last defeated by the community, led by the Plaza 16 Coalition after a seven year battle with the evil maximus corporation.
Gay Shame is important because it is an uncompromised radical queer grassroots group. We need people who hold the very radical edge, that are completely honest about the complexity of the hypocrisy that permeates our lives. Groups like LAGAI, QUIT! and Gay Shame who are not part of the non profit world, are anarchist, non hierarchical, honest about the relentless effects of privilege and oppression in our daily lives, use consensus and community building principles, help us remember what exactly we are fighting for. The existence of this defined revolutionary edge helps me push the limits in all the communities I am part of.
REVOLUTION NOW! QUEERS HATE TECHIES DYKES HATE LANDLORDS
Many of us saw the news on Facebook. “Our community lost a giant today.” Lenn Keller, the visionary-founder of the Bay Area Lesbian Archive joined the ancestors on December 16, surrounded by her closest friends and caregivers. She was a proud, Black, lesbian butch, a photographer, filmmaker and activist who never went anywhere without her camera. She was particularly dedicated to documenting the lives of Black lesbians whose stories are too often not told.
Lenn was born in 1951 and came of age in Evanston, Illinois. Her family had originally been sharecroppers. Her mom died when Lenn was young. Her dad worked as a gravedigger but was able to find low-income housing in an affluent suburb. Remembering attending the white high school she quipped that she was able to get a good education and luckily got out of dating. “It was …a time when white boys didn’t date Black girls. Racism saved me from…heterosexuality.”
On her website, Lenn wrote, “Music was my first love…it has seen me through some of the most challenging times of my life. By age eight, photography had also made an indelible impression on me.”
She loved the beautiful black and white photos in Life magazine, Those images of people from all over world instilled a curiosity about the world beyond Illinois.
It was the sixties and Lenn identified as a hippie and a Black militant and longed to get a taste of that world. Inspired by Malcolm X’s autobiography and Claude Brown’s Manchild in a Promised Land, she ran away from home with a friend. Arriving in NYC, the two, just out of high school, found housing with a group of “radical squatters.” After Lenn was sexually assaulted, they were taken in by a collective of older Black artists in Harlem. Those artists protected and inspired her, and one of the men gave Lenn her first camera.
Lenn was not yet out and became pregnant. She and her daughter Nakiya headed back to Chicago and in 1974, she met her first girlfriend, Elizabeth Summers and came out. The three headed out to the Bay Area together.
Lesbian life was lively back in the day and Lenn was often in the room. There were bars like the Jubilee, Maud’s, Wild Side West, Peg’s Place and Amelia’s. At the bars, Lenn tore up the dance floor but she loved all “women’s spaces,” places where she met lesbian activists who were involved in all kinds of liberation movements and with her camera, she documented these gatherings. Knowing that these events were of historical significance she started collecting flyers, programs and reports from these events. Decades later, these documents became the seeds of the Bay Area Lesbian Archive in 2014.
In the 1990’s, the Bay Area changed, housing became unaffordable and the days of cheap rentals were over, many folks including Lenn had places they had lived in for years sold out from under them. Too many found themselves without a roof over their head or depended on friend’s couches. Somehow Lenn managed. She produced two films, Ifé and Sightings.
In 2014, Lenn organized a meeting at La Pena to build support for the establishment of a community archive. Historian and activist, Lois Helmbold went still remembers the evening. “The room was packed with mostly older women who had been around for a while… there was excitement about the idea of a lesbian archive. I knew Lenn had an idea whose time had come and I wanted to help. I thought it was particularly important that a Black lesbian took the initiative and the lead to do this work for all lesbians.”
Rebecca Silverstein, who worked closely with Lenn on the Archives told me that “What Lenn collected –flyers, postcards, playbills–there were things that I would never have thought of holding on to but today some of those things are true treasures.”
Rebecca continued, “For instance, Lenn collected reports about lesbian events held to raise money for women, mostly Black and Brown women, who were on trial and in jail, accused of murdering their rapists. These were some of the first cases of women defending themselves. For Lenn, it was political what stories were told. If you were not seen then it was almost like you did not have the right to exist.”
In an interview, Lenn talked about teaching incarcerated women at Santa Rita about safe sex. She remembered two Black women coming up to her and asking her how lesbians survived in the world. The two were gay inside but they could not fathom what it was like outside. Lenn shared stories about the communities and groups of lesbians that she knew and how they were family.
Lenn shot thousands of photos of this family. Rebecca described the power of Lenn’s images. “When Lenn’s camera hones in on a detail, she somehow captures the essence of a person or of a moment and sees it within the context of something bigger. That is what Lenn’s work is all about.”
Christina Linden, the curator for the 2019 Oakland Museum exhibit Queer California, talked about Lenn’s contributions to this landmark show. “Lenn’s work was in the show but she was also a participant in the convening that shaped much of the content of the exhibition during an early phase of its development. The exhibition owed so much to her generous contributions, especially in its ability to contribute to opening dialogues around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in both LGBTQ+ communities and in the work of museums”.
Photographer Renee Jones and Lenn would often see each other at political demonstrations, celebrations or in the neighborhoods. “I am always searching for Black faces in the crowd and Lenn was always there,” Renee said. “She was a friend whom I didn’t get to see enough. But when we did, it was special. It seemed we were the last holdouts, still shooting black and white film, often buying from one another when one of us ran out too soon. When I first met Lenn in a group of women photographers, Lenn helped me to speak my mind, beliefs, and understanding of race and racism. I always appreciated how she listened and honored people’s point of view.”
Diana Duff, another photographer in that group, remembered the last time she spoke to Lenn. “Lenn was considering coming to Hawaii to look at my photos to potentially include in the Bay Area Lesbian Archive. I told her there was a great photo I had taken that should be included….it was a nude of Lenn….and we both cracked up but I suspected that the nude was not going to be in the archive.”
Rebecca told me that work on establishing the archive will continue. “Lenn was dedicated in documenting Black and lesbian of color stories. This will continue to be an essential aspect of our mission. Right now the archive is housed in two storage units. We currently have about 60 individual and organizational collections. But we really need a place that is accessible to the public, where researchers and volunteers can work, where folks can listen to oral histories, videos and a gallery space where we can do exhibits.”
Shortly before Lenn died, many of her friends and collaborators gathered online to honor her and say goodbye. Since her death, numerous articles have been published recognizing her contributions to the Bay Area queer community. The BALA Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Bay-Area-Lesbian-Archives-258893197621455) is probably the best place to learn about future memorial events as well as to find links to articles, interviews, photo collections and more about Lenn.
People who don’t follow health care politics closely might believe that Medicare For All is an idea coined by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016. In fact, the idea goes back to 1965, when Medicare was created. The people who set up the program, according to a 2019 Time magazine overview, envisioned it as the first step toward a universal government-funded health program. Or, you could say it goes back thirty years before that, when Franklin Roosevelt proposed adding health coverage to the Social Security Act of 1935.
In 1947, Harry Truman tried to establish national health care financed by the federal government through a payroll tax, in what became the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill. The American Medical Association went on the offensive to kill the bill, stoking fears that “physicians, dentists, nurses and medical technicians” would “become … servant[s] of a government agency taking orders from a departmental bureaucrat” and branding the not-that-liberal Truman a closet socialist. The AMA hired a public relations firm to wage a propaganda campaign, and successfully prevented the bill even from coming up for a vote.
The Sad Tale of Proposition 186
The California Health Security Act, Proposition 186, was placed on the California ballot in 1994. The initiative was sponsored by a coalition led by a San Francisco grassroots organizing group called Neighbor-to-Neighbor. The activists quickly gathered over a million signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. More impressively, sixty percent of those signatures were gathered by volunteer canvassers, something virtually unheard of now, when nearly all successful initiative campaigns employ paid signature gatherers. Unfortunately, that was the high point of the organizing campaign. To the great disappointment of activists, including LAGAI members who beat the pavements to encourage people to vote for single payer health care, 186 lost overwhelmingly, with just over a quarter of voters voting yes.
Part of what doomed Proposition 186 was its timing. It was on the same ballot as Proposition 187, a broad anti-immigrant measure, and the Three Strikes Initiative (Proposition 184), which enabled many people to be locked up for life for minor crimes, and contributed a lot to California’s mass incarceration explosion. Both of those were much higher profile than 186. Latinx and Asian organizations were more focused on 187, while the Black community and youth organizations were working hard to stop Three Strikes (the substance of the initiative had already been adopted by the legislature and signed into law but the initiative meant that it couldn’t be undone by a future legislature). With the exception of a few left-led coalitions, there was not that much crossover between the two groups, and neither of them had strong ties with the groups promoting single payer, primarily labor unions and the senior sector, who hired an all-white staff to direct the campaign.
The Prop 186 campaign was further hindered by the fact that the O.J. Simpson case had led major news outfits to pare down their electoral coverage, and there were also highly contested gubernatorial and Senate races (it was the first Senate race after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 and dianne feinstein and barbara boxer were elected as the first women Senators from California). What little mainstream media coverage the single payer campaign got was negative, and focused on how much it would cost, despite the nonpartisan legislative analyst’s projection that the long-term impact on the state’s finances would be neutral or positive. According to a thorough and interesting analysis by Peter Dreier and Matthew Glasser in the journal Social Policy, the campaign did not produce any data or stories to effectively counter the negative messaging put out by the media and the $10 billion corporate opposition.
Propositions 187 passed with 59% of the vote, evil republikkkan pete wilson was reelected governor with about 55%, and Three Strikes passed with over 71%. So a simpler explanation for Proposition 186’s failure could be that it was just a very mean-spirited time in our beloved state. Which I can attest that it was.
Another issue identified by Dreier and Glasser was that in 1994, the clinton administration was embroiled in trying to create some type of universal coverage plan that could get through congress. (Monica Lewinsky and stained dresses had not yet taken over the airwaves.) A lot of California voters, they suggest, thought the problem (of unaffordable or unavailable health coverage) was going to be taken care of at the federal level. Moreover, active or identified Democrats were wary of anything that might look like it was seeking to undermine the administration’s efforts. The same problem would rear its head in 2012, when state Democrats worried that any effort to pass statewide single payer would look like disloyalty to obama and the embattled Affordable Care Act.
In between those two polar events, a labor-led coalition called Health Care for All-California (HCA) spent many years scheming and dreaming. One plan to get a single payer bill introduced in the Assembly stalled when the specially selected author of the bill, Barbara Lee, was bumped up to Congressional Representative after Ron Dellums abruptly retired. In 1999, the Senate passed, and governor gray davis signed, SB480, which called for a study process followed by the “enactment” of universal health care for all Californians. The catch: language setting a “date certain” for such care to be established was removed as a condition of its passage. The result was a series of studies, studies and more studies, the Universal Health Care Technical Advisory Committee (UHCTAC) and the California Health Care Options Project (Cal-HCOP). When you see that many acronyms, you know nothing good is going to happen.
However, in 2006, the California legislature became the first in the country to pass a bill calling for single-payer health care. governator arnold schwarzenegger, who grew up in a country with national health care, vetoed it, calling it “socialized medicine” in an op-ed. After a year-long direct action campaign by labor and community organizations, the legislature passed a second bill in 2008. The governator vetoed it again.
Long and Winding Road
In 2018, the state senate passed SB 562. It was a really good bill, mostly written by the California Nurses Association (CNA), calling for universal coverage for all California residents, regardless of immigration status, age or any other demographic distinctions. It would eliminate private health insurance, expand the current care offered under Medicare and Medicaid (Medi-Cal) to include dental, vision, mental health, substance abuse treatment and long-term home care. All current subsidies from federal and state sources, such as Medicare, Medicaid and ACA subsidies, would be bundled and used to provide treatment under the program. Since 70% of current health care spending is currently funded through federal or state programs, that leaves only 30% to be funded through a Health Care Trust, which would have to be funded through taxes. The taxing mechanism was not specified in the bill, and assembly speaker anthony rendon used that lack of specificity as a reason to table the bill, saying it wasn’t ready to be voted on. Many people suspected that rendon was taking the fall for outgoing governor jerry brown, who had once supported single payer but had since backtracked and maybe didn’t want one of his final acts to be vetoing something supported by the unions that had helped elect him.
gavin newsom was elected governor in November 2018, with strong support from CNA. Newsom, who claims credit for the “Healthy San Francisco” program enacted while he was mayor, promised CNA “you have my firm and absolute commitment as your next Governor that I will lead the effort to get [single payer] done … have universal healthcare in the state of California.” When he took office in January 2019, he immediately wrote to the white house and congressional leaders, asking for a waiver that would allow California to use ACA subsidies to establish a single payer system. He never got a response from the white house.
Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, along with outspoken members of the congressional progressive caucus including Pramilla Jayapal, who introduced the Medicare For All Act in the house, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez who rules Twitter, helped make “Medicare for All” a litmus test in the 2020 primaries. In an April 2020 poll by The Hill newspaper, 69% of registered voters supported “providing medicare to every American,” and that included 49% of republikkkans.
A recent Kaiser Foundation poll found that 87% of Democrats supported “Medicare for All” but only 64% supported “single payer health care.” And therein lies part of the rub.
The idea of calling a single-payer health care delivery system “Medicare for All” came from a former staffer to Ted Kennedy, who championed the idea from 1974 until he died in 2009. Philip Caper, according to Pro Publica, told Kennedy in the early 2000s that “single payer … was too wonky, and no one knew what it meant.” Medicare was popular and people knew what it was. You didn’t have to waste time explaining it. Except …
Mention Medicare For All (M4A) to anyone currently on Medicare and the first thing you’re likely to hear is a rant about how terrible Medicare is. Though still popular, it’s been eroded considerably since the Reagan years, and new enrollees are frequently shocked by the cost, complex rules, and in some areas, scarcity of providers. At the same time, the right wing is busy telling seniors, who are less supportive of single payer in general than younger voters, that M4A will “eliminate Medicare” when in fact, the proposed bills would make it much better.
The bill first introduced by the late John Conyers in the house in 2003 was called the “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act.” Jayapal’s bill and its companion in the Senate, introduced by Sanders, would cover a lot of things that Medicare does not currently cover and eliminate copays, donut holes, prescription fees and other loopholes. No more Part D or Part B. No more Medicare vs. Medicaid vs. ACA coverage.
Back to the Future?
joe biden famously promised to veto any Medicare For All bill that made it to his desk. However, his pick for health & human services secretary, Xavier Becerra, is on record as a strong supporter of M4A. According to the New York Times, if confirmed, he would have the power to grant waivers to enable states to transition to single payer if they wanted to. A coalition of about fifty labor and community organizations called Healthy California Now is preparing to launch a campaign to pressure newsom to ask for such a waiver as soon as biden takes office.
Though it might seem like this shouldn’t be a tough win, given newsom’s promises to fight like hell for single payer, he’s not exactly a model of integrity. Some people in the know seem to suspect that he only asked the current administration for the waiver because he knew he wouldn’t get it and that he might balk if he thinks he might actually have to implement single payer. He’s made noises in the last year about not doing anything during the COVID-induced recession, and in fact, a pandemic is not the ideal time to contemplate huge changes to the state’s health care infrastructure. On the other hand, COVID has made it more than clear how inadequate our current system is and how badly we need something better.
Democratic Socialists of America has taken the lead on preparing a petition to newsom demanding that he ask for the waiver. The petition will launch on January 7 and we’ll be trying to get a minimum of 25,000 signatures before inauguration day. All the member groups of Healthy California Now (HCN) will be pushing their members to sign and share it. DSA is planning a wide range of actions to build interest and spread the word, from short videos of people from different constituencies telling their stories, to press conferences with art actions to phone banking and possibly in-person canvassing (some members feel that canvassing during the current COVID surge and shutdown sends a bad message, even though it can be done with proper distancing protocols).
HCN is also working with legislators to reintroduce SB562, or a new version of it. This one will hopefully solve the funding mechanism issue, which remains thorny. One problem is that Proposition 98, passed by the voters in 1988, mandates that 40% of the state’s budget go to schools. So if, as the 2017 analysts assessed, the new health system required an increase to the state’s budget of $106 billion annually, the new taxes would need to raise $150 billion. The other problem, probably the bigger one, is that people just don’t like new taxes. Even though for most people health care spending would decrease, that would not be true immediately, and people like immediate gratification.
About 45% of Californians get health insurance through their employers. I asked in our DSA committee what would happen to those folks (of which I’m one) under the single payer plan and was told, it’ll all be good, don’t worry about it. But I do worry about it because I think my coworkers would squawk if they see a 15% tax increase (one number I have seen, although there are other, much lower figures thrown around), we lose our company-provided health benefits and our wages don’t go up. While the union-produced fact sheet I was referred to suggested that “money saved from lower healthcare costs could go to wages and other employee benefits,” there’s no guarantee of that. In nonunionized workplaces with employees in many states, like mine, it’s pretty unlikely that employers will want to have two different wage scales for the same positions, one for California and one for everywhere else. I did find one thing that says, “Employers would still be able to pick up 100% of payroll premiums,” and that seems plausible – that instead of paying my premium to Blue Cross, my work pays into the California Health Care Trust on my behalf. But that’s actually the first thing I’ve seen that suggests we’re talking about a payroll tax; the previous plan called for a gross receipts tax on businesses, and a sales tax with some kind of income-based tax credit – not a good idea, if you ask me, but no one is.
Right now, California groups are using the “Medicare For All” language to capitalize on its name recognition, but hopefully we will soon transition to something like CalCare. Medicare is a limited federal program, and what we’re talking about is really different, so we just waste time trying to explain that this M4A really has nothing to do with Medicare.
Although HCN has a great statement on its website calling for abolition of policing as we know it, defunding the police, and recognizing racism as a health risk, the ties between M4A and California single payer advocates and racial justice groups, especially Black organizations, are still weak. Groups like Movement for Black Lives, Alliance of California Communities for Empowerment (ACCE) and Black Youth Organizing Project have endorsed the campaign, but are not prioritizing it in their own organizing. As one organizer said, “When Black folks hear ‘for all,’ we know that doesn’t mean us.” The good news is that HCN understands this and is working to create the relationships needed to win single payer in California. Check out their “Report and Strategic Recommendations” at https://healthyca.org/get-involved/california-single-payer-report-and-strategic-recommendations/.
Get involved. Get info at healthyca.org or consider joining DSA’s Medicare 4 All committee wherever you live (dsausa.org). Or if there isn’t a chapter (maybe in your prison?), start one! (Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or Democratic Socialists of America, PO Box 1038, New York, NY 10272.)
Look for the petition to newsom on January 7 wherever you get your news (it’ll be on Action Network). Sign it and send it to ten friends.
One in eight U.S. residents lives in California. As we go, so go New York, Washington and no doubt, Austin, Texas.
Leila Khaled was a leader in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and in 1969 and 1970, she participated in two of the boldest and best known actions of the Palestinian militant resistance movement. She was only 26 in 1970, and a poster of her sculpted face framed by a keffiyeh next to a rifle she appears to caress became iconic, decorating the rooms of a generation of international feminists. The chance to hear her speak “live,” especially in conversation with other scholars and activists focused on gender justice, felt like the opportunity of a lifetime.
Zoom cancelled the airing of the class on its platform the evening prior to the event, after the link had already been sent out to the more than 1500 people who had preregistered. Scrambling around on the morning of the event, we were told we could see it on Facebook. Facebook shut down the live streaming and even removed the announcement of the webinar from AMED Studies events, threatening co-sponsors that they risk the shutting down of their pages. It moved to YouTube, which abruptly shut it down after 23 minutes.
These corporate platforms were all responding to pressure from Zionist organizations which have relentlessly targeted the AMED program, its director, Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, and the student group General Union of Palestinian Students on campus for harassment and threats. SFSU and the rest of the California State University system use Zoom as a primary mode of online teaching during the COVID-19 shutdown. In fact, SFSU has an exclusive contract with Zoom, making it dependent on Zoom for conducting its university affairs. However, rather than seriously challenging Zoom’s corporate control over education and defending the rights of its faculty, the University administration chose to defer (in the words of its president) to a “private [company’s] . . . right to set its own terms of service in its contracts with users.”
San Francisco State created the AMED program in the wake of September 11, 2001, in order to recognize and redress the hostile environment that exists for many Middle Eastern, North African and Muslim students on its campus. This was a groundbreaking program with the potential to be a model for schools around the country. Unfortunately, SFSU has never stood behind the program, which has been attacked from its outset with increasing intensity and viciousness.
USABI issued the following statement regarding what happened at SFSU:
“What happened in September at SFSU should alert all higher education faculty to the threats posed by these private companies on campuses across the country and internationally. It is particularly dangerous for teaching, research and learning about Palestine. It also has serious implications in these very conservative times for universities everywhere as centers of knowledge production about many controversial issues and ideas, particularly those related to gender, sexuality, migration, racism, policing, and the criminalization of Black and Indigenous lives. WE MUST STOP THIS DANGEROUS TREND and come together to demand that:
“1) SFSU provides an alternative public platform for a rescheduled webinar that assures no students or other participants will be denied the right to attend and hear from Leila Khaled and the other luminaries on the panel.
“2) SFSU commits publicly to assuring that it will guarantee respect and protection for the academic freedom of its faculty, following the protocols of established faculty governance.
“3) SFSU’s President issues a public apology to Professors Abdulhadi and Kinukawa, their invited guests, and all the 1,500 SFSU students and other participants who registered for the open classroom.
“4) Faculty and students across the country demand of their own universities a renewed and firm commitment to defend academic freedom and to resist any monopoly over our curricula by these tech giants and any other powerful external interests. Demand universities END CONTRACTS WITH ZOOM!”
On December 21, Professors Abdulhadi and Kinukawa filed a claim against SFSU, as a procedural step toward filing suit against the college and Zoom over this censorship. The Oakland-based civil rights law firm Siegel & Yee is representing them.
Get more info about this campaign and steps you can take at usacbi.org. The original webinar did take place with private recording, but it’s unclear if it is available to stream on any platform at this time.
Since November 25, tens of thousands of Indian farmers have been blocking highways leading into the city of New Delhi, camping at the side of the roads with wagons, trucks and tractors. The farmers are protesting against 3 bills that were passed by the parliament in September. They say that the laws could cause the government to stop buying grain at guaranteed prices and would result in exploitation by corporations (agri-business) who would buy their crops below what the farmers need. More than 85% of farmers in India own farms smaller than 3 acres. The average income of farmers is very low and it is highly unlikely that any of them would benefit from the deregulation that the new laws mandate. Nearly 60% of the Indian population depends on agriculture for their livelihoods; this rebellion has rattled Modi’s administration and allies.
The protests have now spread to other parts of the country, blocking roads and railway tracks. Some of them have started growing crops right where they are: “Since we have been sitting idle for a month during protests, we thought of growing onions as we can use it for our daily cooking.”
There have been demonstrations led by Sikh communities all over the world in support of the farmers: thousands in the U.K. Canada, France and Australia. The issue is of profound importance to the Sikh community because farming is part of their history. The Sikh faith began in Punjab, now the state in India that produces much of the country’s agricultural output. Sikh Americans in at least 13 states in the u.s. have gathered in vehicle caravans and assembled at socially-distanced rallies to protest in solidarity. A huge car caravan on Dec. 5th blocked westbound traffic on the Bay Bridge, heading from Oakland to the Indian consulate in S.F.. One sign read, ‘Modi is more dangerous than COVID’. The Seattle City Council passed a resolution to support the farmers.
Right now things are at a stalemate. Many farmer unions have been involved in the protests and several have proposed December 29th for the sixth round of talks with the government. Five previous meetings ended with no agreement. The farmers have warned that there would be a tractor march on December 30th if there is no talk of removing the new laws. There’s no sign that the farmers will give up their protest despite the cold weather and worsening conditions. They need whatever support we all are able to give so they will win.
2020 is screeching to a close and I am tasked with writing something upbeat to start us on an upbeat note for the new year. Some people are hopeful that the next administration will usher in an era of peace and prosperity, a time we pivot from fossil fuels to clean power, a time of when Black lives matter and Indigenous people’s wisdom will be heard. Wouldn’t that be grand? Unfortunately I think the world is always messier than that and at best it is two steps forward and one step back… it takes a lot of work to keep it to only one step back so some progress is made.
Some good news, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a coal fired power plant that operated for over 50 years near Page Arizona is not only permanently closed but now on its way to being reclaimed. The demolition video shows – three 775-foot-tall smokestacks and buildings collapsing in minutes. A short video is available here from ecoflight https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZwoYB_ERLI&t=20s
Navajo and Hopi statements on the demolition emphasized how the impacts of coal mining and electricity generation at NGS fell on native people, including polluted air and loss of groundwater, for the benefit of big cites hungry for electricity and water. And while the power station is being reclaimed, Kayenta coal mine including coal pits and tailings piles stretching across thousands of acres remains to be cleaned up. NGS used large amounts of groundwater for cooling and more billions of gallons of groundwater were pumped from the Navajo Aquifer to slurry the coal through a pipeline to another power plant hundreds of miles away (the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada)—that lost groundwater cannot be replaced and will take centuries to recharge in the arid southwest.
Meanwhile instead of turning to clean energy solutions like rooftop solar, conservation and efficiency, the world is still hungry for more oil and gas. As the arctic ice retreats, oil and gas companies have moved their drilling further north. The high-profile and hard fought wins to stop some drilling off Alaska are heartening but meanwhile Norway and other countries are plowing ahead with new oil rigs off shore in the North Sea. In late-December the Norway’s supreme court rejected efforts by Greenpeace and other groups to invalidate licenses for new oil exploration in the Arctic based on the country’s constitutional right to a clean environment (something we here in the u.s. certainly don’t have). The court found that the right to a clean environment did not bar the government from drilling for offshore oil, and that Norway did not have any legal responsibility for emissions stemming from oil it exports. This is a truly startling statement in the context of climate change which is a global problem– whether the oil is used in Norway or elsewhere the effects are the same and are disproportionately felt in the arctic!
We need to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure and stop the burning!
I see I have failed in my task to be upbeat. Did you hear about the wild mink with Covid-19 that may be spreading to other wildlife? That is a very scary story I didn’t mention, so on balance perhaps this was upbeat?
Hi Readers—we’re really thinking about all of you inside. Hope you’re doing ok. Here on the outside it’s pandemic movie-tv watching with all the inequalities and contradictions that brings up. Here’s some of what we’ve seen.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (review by Deni and Chaya)
Set in 1927 Chicago during a recording session, and part of August Wilson’s 10-play Century Cycle, the film has powerful performances by Viola Davis as queer blues singer Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman (his last movie role before he died) as Levee, a trumpet player in her band. The film maintained the play’s intense snappy dialogue, the sets and lighting enhanced time and place, and the music was outstanding. It addresses the impact of racism on the musicians’ lives and white appropriation of Black music. Rainey is shown to be a strong, commanding woman, an incredible performer fighting against racist and sexist odds. The statements she makes about the meaning of the blues and how she’s used and abused by the white male music establishment are powerful. But we learn little of her life story, while Levee’s forceful soliloquies give a far greater understanding of his life. However, Viola Davis said when she first saw the play, “What struck me is from the moment she came on the stage, [Rainey] knew her worth. . . . She just absolutely took the space without apology.” In other words, Rainey’s presence is her story. The film’s portrayal of lesbianism is a problem, with stereotypes of a lesbian lusting for a younger cute woman who barely reciprocates and is far more engaged sexually with a man. Rainey deserved better. Coming up in the next MC is info on a play being developed by 3 generations of Black queer theater artists about a Black queer character inspired by August Wilson’s plays.
FUNNY BOY (review by Chaya)
Based on the novel by Sri Lankan-Canadian Shyam Selvadurai, this 2020 Canadian film set in Sri Lanka follows Arjie from getting in trouble as a boy playing dress-up in drag to coming out as a young man. It takes place in the 1970s-1980s amidst the growing conflict/civil war between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil people. Arjie’s family is wealthy, not typical for Tamils, and class issues are a part of the story. The theme of finding your true identity includes the storyline of Arjie’s biggest childhood supporter, his Auntie Radha, who is a free spirit, but suffers the consequences. The film was a bit long and the political conflict needed to be clearer and stronger. It has been criticized for its use of Sinhalese actors playing Tamil roles (including Brandon Ingram who plays Arjie as a young man). Ingram lives in the Sri Lankan capitol of Colombo, acts in local theater and is openly queer. Sri Lanka still has anti-LGBTQI laws, a leftover from the British colonial occupation. Director Deepa Mehta said she believes that some Tamil actors may have rejected roles in the film “given it’s a criminal offense to be queer in Sri Lanka.” It was Canada’s Oscar submission for Best International Film 2021, but was rejected by the Academy for having more than 50% of the dialogue in English. Worth seeing.
RESIDUE (review by Deni)
This stunning film by first time writer-director Merawi Gerima takes place in Washington D.C. Filmmaker Jay (Obi Nwachukwu)) returns home to write a script about his hometown and confronts gentrification, mass incarceration, police violence and their effects on his family, old friends and his Black community. Excellent politics, cinematography, writing, acting, and its combination of metaphor/symbolism and reality. Filmmaker Gerima is the son of filmmakers Haile Gerima and Shirikiana Aina, both part of the L.A. Rebellion film movement of the 1960s-80s. His father made the award-winning 1993 film Sankofa and in 1982 his mother made Brick by Brick, an acclaimed documentary about the gentrification of poor Black D.C. neighborhoods. Powerful and haunting, Residue is a film to see if you can.
40-YEAR-OLD-VERSION (review by Chaya)
Actor, playwright, rapper Radha Blank wrote and directed her first feature film—a semi-autobiography—starring herself as an actor, playwright and rapper facing middle-age in New York City. Both Radhas (the character and the playwright) make hilarious and insightful personal and social commentary while trying to navigate relationship and professional situations (like authenticity vs opportunity). Lena Waithe (Master of None) produced it and Radha thanked Waithe for trusting Radha’s vision and giving her room to do it. The film won several awards including Sundance’s Vanguard Award honoring her directorial debut and NY/LA Film Critics awards. It’s not every day we get to see a Black queer woman filmmaker! Great movie.
ARAB FILM FESTIVAL (reviews by Deni)
BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH by filmmaker Najwa Najjar is a road trip movie in which Salma (Mouna Hawa) and husband Tamer (Firas Nassar) travel from Ramallah to Israel for a reluctant divorce. It’s a complicated (occasionally confusing) plot which includes many historical issues: Mossad assassinations against Palestinian activists in 1970s Beirut; Arab Jews who emigrated to Israel and had their babies secretly adopted by Ashkenazi Jews; and the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Iqrit, a mainly Christian village on the Lebanese border, which won an Israeli court case to get back its land—only to have the Israel Defense Forces destroy almost everything. The personal journey and the mystery about Tamer’s father were told amidst checkpoints, Israeli soldiers and discriminatory laws. Beautiful cinematography and excellent acting.
DHALINYARO/YOUTH In this 2018 film, one of the first from Djibouti in the horn of Africa, filmmaker Lula Ali Ismail tells an emotional, funny, dynamic coming of age story about 3 best friends (played by Amina Mohamed Ali, Tousmo Mouhoumed Mohamed, and Bilan Samir Moubus), young Djiboutian women in their last year of high school. The film intersects class, womanhood, family and relationships with a cinematically stunning view of Djibouti City. Blending modern and traditional, the women struggle to make choices about their futures. It’s a beautiful and moving film.
BARZAKH by Karina Dandashi, a Syrian American Muslim writer and director. A fascinating short dystopian futuristic queer film. A Syrian refugee misses her deportation launch to Mars (recently colonized) as the US government sends refugees and undocumented immigrants there. Left on earth, she makes a musical connection with another woman, a local DJ.
SON OF A DANCER, a 2018 Lebanese film by award-winning queer filmmaker George Hazim, tells the poignant story of 20-year-old Majed, grieving his mother who recently died. Shocked when he learns that she was a belly dancer and kept a separate apartment, he must deal with his feelings about this, his father’s silence in grief and guilt, and his own desire to dance. A moving film with beautiful imagery.
IN A SPACE EXODUS (2009), Palestinian artist/director Larissa Sansour created the first of her sci-fi trilogy. She adapted scenes from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but with a Middle Eastern political view. Traveling through the universe, the first Palestinian in space lands on the moon and plants a Palestinian flag. “A small step for a Palestinian, a giant leap for mankind,” her voice echoing through her helmet. Quirky, funny and political.
M’ENTENDS TU? CAN YOU HEAR ME? (guest review by Claire)
This tragic-comedy Netflix series from Quebec takes place in a poorer section of Montreal that you usually don’t see on television. The three main characters, women who’ve been friends since middle school, are poor and rely on each other when dealing with their messy lives and seek solace in each other’s company. The strength of the series is that it deals with real issues plaguing real people like addiction and domestic violence and doesn’t shy away from the serious day-to-day struggles of poor people’s lack of resources. Being from Montreal, I was thrilled with the authenticity of language and place. A show to watch, don’t trust me but Rotten Tomatoes gave it 100% rating.
GOOD LORD BIRD (review by Chaya and Deni)
This 7-episode Showtime series, created and executive produced by Ethan Hawke from Black author James McBride’s novel, stars Hawke as white abolitionist John Brown. Brown is presented as an “over the top” charismatic religious character morally driven to free enslaved people. It’s part farce, part drama, part annoying. The story follows Brown as he tries to marshal his forces in pre-statehood Kansas, which was struggling over whether it would be a free state or a state with enslaved people. Building toward his goal of raiding the federal armory at Harpers Ferry to trigger a rebellion of enslaved people and white supporters, Brown meets a variety of people including Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs, in a small but dramatic role), Rafael Casal as one of Brown’s followers and Zainab Jah as Harriet Tubman. Each episode begins with “All of this is true” followed by “Most of it happened.” The unsuccessful raid did happen, the big revolt didn’t, but the Civil War was sparked. The story is narrated by 14-year-old “Onion” (Joshua Caleb Johnson), the enslaved child that Brown semi-adopts after causing the death of Onion’s father. Mistaking Onion for a girl, Brown gives him a dress to wear. Onion assumes the identity of a girl for his own safety, which numerous Black characters see right through and white characters don’t. This is one of many running jokes in the series, but it’s not really funny—it uses the idea of a trans person just as a plot device. We’ll end with a question Black queer photographer/artist D’Angelo Lovell Williams raises in his excellent NY Times Magazine article: “How precisely one ‘gets it right’ when it comes to the intersection of slavery and Hollywood is at this point unclear. . . . Can a white person ever usefully tell a slave story—or, more specific, can they tell a story that is useful to the descendants of the enslaved, rather to their own egos or cinematic fantasies?”
FIRST COW (review by Chaya and Deni)
Director Kelly Reichardt’s film about life in the 1820s Oregon Territory is beautifully filmed (except numerous scenes shot in complete darkness) but oooh sooo slooow. The cow, played by Evie the Cow, was terrific but didn’t have enough dialogue. We’re a bit baffled—why is this film on so many “best of 2020” lists? And how to portray some degree of historical accuracy without ending up with women and native people almost entirely in the background? Come on Hollywood, do it or moooove over.
THE FALL OF THE ANC: WHAT NEXT? by Prince Mashele and Mzukisi Qobo (book review by Cole)
Like many UV readers, I had in recent years heard serious concerns raised with regard to the integrity of the African National Congress. The massacre of the Mirikana striking mine workers was a horrific wake-up call as to grave problems. The Museum of the African Diaspora sponsored a showing of The Giant is Falling, which documented widespread disenchantment with the ANC. Anxious to learn more, I purchased The Fall of the ANC: What Next.What a waste of money might’ve been a more accurate title. I had hoped to read a principled analysis of the ANC’s shortcomings informed by a non-sectarian leftist perspective. This book is anything but. The authors are adamantly anti-communist; the book is long on rhetoric, short on facts and overlooks some undisputed barriers the ANC faced when taking power. The ANC is criticized for failing to effectuate the Freedom Charter’s plan to nationalize the banks and mines; the simple truth is that action would’ve made them pariahs in the international post-Soviet new world order and further damaged an economy already weakened by massive strikes and sanctions. The authors castigate the ANC for its misapprehension as to the health of South Africa’s economy at the inception of the post-apartheid government and the erroneous expectation that funds existed to provide basic services to black South Africans. While the economy may well have been damaged by strikes and sanctions, the existence of abundant mineral resources and a robust agricultural sector would certainly point to tax revenue adequate to address the legacy of apartheid. The book states that the ANC failed to anticipate the mechanics of governing and overlooks the many cadre that were sent to the Soviet bloc nations for training in economics, social planning and the like. It’s all too easy in hindsight to fault that approach. The authors do speak glowingly of the Truth and Reconciliation process and are generally respectful of Nelson Mandela; guess they felt that they had to say at least something nice.
I acknowledge – however painful that acknowledgment may be – that the ANC has demonstrated major errors in governance and has not actualized Mandela’s vision. An intelligent evaluation as to why would’ve been welcome. This book does not provide that assessment in any way, shape or form. Save your time and money.
BITS AND PIECES
HACKS AND OTHER ATTACKS
As we write, the government is still stumped by the ongoing December hack attack on US Energy, Treasury and Commerce Departments. The true scale of the breach remains unknown, and may have extended beyond the US government. Russia is suspected (surprised?). And what about that NYT story from December 5: “Report Points to Microwave ‘attack.’” Called the “Havana syndrome,” a series of mysterious afflictions hit American employees over the past several years in Cuba, China, Russia, etc. The most probable cause is “radio frequency energy.” Without tedious scientific explanations, we’re warning you to regard any microwave appliances with highest suspicion. Remember: If your microwave tends to the right, it’s not your friend when you cook at night.
IMAGINE OUR SURPRISE!
Police drones are coming for you. Violate your rights when you step out your door? Check. Press a button to dispatch a drone to a location? Check. Have the drone take photos at the scene? Check. Send a live video feed to law enforcement? Check. Tell the drone to fly home? Check. Track people/vehicles automatically? Check. Collect and store video? Check. Hone in on urban areas? Check. See into buildings? Check. Alarm the ACLU about privacy rights violations? Checkmate.
As we go to press, there are no intensive care unit (ICU) beds available in two of five regions of California — the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. There are no ICU beds available in the big UCLA hospital system. The Bay Area is not doing much better, with ICU capacity having fallen below 10 percent, though it’s now back to 11. Officially, u.s. COVID deaths are over 330,000 as of December 25, with almost 19 million confirmed cases. In California there have been over 2 million confirmed cases and 24,000 deaths. The world case count is over 80 million, with 1.76 million deaths recorded. No doubt the total is actually much higher. Merry xmas and happy new year.
It’s important to remember that it didn’t have to be this bad. The trump regime initially decided to ignore the virus, then provided constant disinformation, refused to put sufficient resources into testing, contact tracing, and protecting “essential workers” including failing to provide good respirators and other PPE, and to require changes in working conditions in meat packing and other industries. Hospitals are still “conserving” PPE by denying it to workers who take care of COVID patients. The pandemic followed a decade, under both republicans and democrats, of pandemic unplanning, including the dismantling of local, state, and national equipment stockpiles and public health infrastructure.
A hostile god?
If you needed more proof that there is no justice, trump reportedly survived his October bout with COVID. Some blame an obviously uncaring god, while others believe trump never had the virus. But he had the best possible medical care, including hospitalization at Walter Reed National Medical Center and then in a specially constructed ICU at the white house. And he had physician Sean Conley who admitted lying to the press in order to be “upbeat” about trump’s condition. Odd how the word “upbeat” takes on such specific meanings.
In the less privileged world we inhabit, there’s an outbreak of COVID-19 at FCI Dublin. The bureau of prisons (bop) reported that cases almost doubled during the week ending December 22, from 136 to 219. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the bop reported 172 people in federal prisons who died, and two staff members, out of a total system population of 124,000 and 36,000 staff. Per bop, there are also about 14,000 people incarcerated in federal private prisons, of whom more than 1000 have contracted COVID-19, and 13 have died.
About twenty of California’s prisons have reported over 100 new cases within the past 14 days, with a reported total of 6,682 new cases system-wide. Of the almost 100,000 people still incarcerated in California’s state prisons, a total of 37,000 (more than a third) have been confirmed infected, and 114 have died. It took several federal court proceedings to establish a testing program for prison employees so that they would not continue to bring and transmit the virus in the prisons, and regular employee testing did not occur at several facilities until July. Although the prisons established a “universal masking” policy, there are still many reports of guards not using masks or respirators. There have been eleven thousand confirmed cases among California prison employees and almost 3300 cases have occurred within the past 14 days. Eleven prison employees have died.
Preferably, people with airborne diseases such as TB, or COVID, should be placed in rooms with special ventilation systems that reduce the risk of circulating the virus, called “airborne infection isolation rooms.” But there are nowhere near enough isolation rooms to handle the number of patients hospitalized with COVID. Other than the newish California Health Care Facility (CHCF) in Stockton, prisons have few or no functional isolation rooms. So public health advice is to put patients in individual rooms with a closed door to reduce transmission, or to cohort them with other COVID patients. In hospitals, people placed in these rooms can communicate with the nursing station through intercoms or phones. In prisons, people with COVID illness are often incarcerated in the “administrative segregation” area (aka “the hole”) These cells, designed for punishment, have no direct communication with the outside, and with the door shut, no way to call for help. Rarely, the sickest incarcerated people are moved to community hospitals, where, despite their being intensely sick and often on ventilators they are handcuffed to the bed under constant surveillance. (Please see Corona Virus in Prison for more about conditions in prisons.)
The impact of immigration enforcement
ICE currently reports 456 active COVID cases among the 16,000 people currently incarcerated in their facilities. ICE claims a total of over 8,000 people who have tested positive in their facilities, although testing at ICE was slow to start and remains sporadic. ICE’s data has been challenged as unreliable and inconsistent by Vera Institute of Justice.
California has six ICE facilities, five are operated by private prison companies. There have been large COVID outbreaks at three – Otay Mesa (operated by CoreCivic), and Mesa Verde and Adelanto (operated by Geo group).
ICE detention is not only spreading COVID among incarcerated immigrants, but to the communities surrounding them. A December report by the Detention Watch Network found that “COVID-19 due to ICE’s negligence was dramatic. Across the United States, the COVID-19 caseload surged over the summer of 2020. ICE exacerbated the pandemic. Between May and August, our analyses reveal that ICE detention facilities were responsible for over 245,000 COVID-19 cases throughout the country.”
ICE also spread COVID 19 to other countries through deportation of infected immigrants. For example, between March and September, the u.s. deported 5,949 people to Guatemala on 78 deportation flights. Not all people were tested on arrival, but of those who were, 332 were positive. On some flights over 90 percent of the people were positive.
Although federal OSHA has turned down the unions’ petitions for an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from COVID, several state OSHA plans have now passed emergency standards, including Virginia, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, and finally California. California was the only state that before the pandemic had a regulation to protect workers in health care, prisons and certain other higher risk workplaces from aerosol transmissible diseases including TB, measles, and pandemic outbreaks such as COVID. The regulations in the other states apply to health care, but mostly by referring to CDC recommendations, which have been weak. But then again, so has enforcement by OSHA. Early in the pandemic, the governor’s executive order directed Cal/OSHA to avoid actual enforcement except in extreme cases, and try to advise employers.
Here’s some good news, the CDC has finally acknowledged that COVID is spread through inhalation of aerosols and that “It is possible that COVID-19 may spread through the droplets and airborne particles that are formed when a person who has COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes. There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes). In general, indoor environments without good ventilation increase this risk.” Better late than never?
As the pandemic has developed, it has become clear that like congregate living facilities and prisons, crowded workplaces provide an opportunity for the virus to spread once introduced. Since many of the workers in “essential businesses” are people of color, this magnifies the epidemic in communities of color, who are disproportionately affected by, and dying of, this disease.
California’s new emergency regulation, and the regulations in the other states, apply to all workplaces (except workers in California covered by the existing regulation), and have additional requirements for workplaces with outbreaks or higher risk of outbreak, such as meat packing, food processing, warehousing, and agriculture. None of these regulations actually mandate significant process changes, such as slowing down the line speed in food processing.
In California, the United Farm Workers and individual workers went to court to require the Foster Farms chicken processing facility in Livingston to follow the local health department’s orders and recommendations. The Livingston plant employs about 4000 people. An outbreak that started in the summer eventually led to 392 detected infections and 9 deaths. Sections of the plant were briefly shut down at the beginning of September, and infections eventually decreased through testing and exclusion of infected workers. Then in December, at least 48 new infections were detected, and employees went to court to demand that the company follow the August orders from the local health department. They were granted a temporary restraining order. A new outbreak has occurred in two other FF facilities in Fresno.
Many states now have some form of workers compensation presumptions for COVID infections. That means that employers in the affected industry now have the burden to prove that the COVID was not acquired in the workplace, for example, in the case of a nurse filing for workers compensation. Some of these mandates are being challenged in court.
Vaccination – the “light at the end of the tunnel”
Two weeks ago, the u.s. began distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which requires two doses, three weeks apart. According to the New York Times, although the government has obtained almost ten million doses (half of what it had initially promised by the end of the year), only about two million people have been vaccinated so far. This fragile vaccine, which requires storage at minus 70 degrees C (minus 94 degrees F), is being distributed by FedEx and UPS, to designated health care facilities. A similar but somewhat less fragile vaccine from Moderna, requiring only common freezer temperatures, started being distributed last week. It requires two doses, 4 weeks apart. Both vaccines are said to confer some immunity about 10 days after the first shot.
As of December 23, the state was scheduled to receive 1,762,900 doses this month, but had only received 437,900 and 70,258 people have been vaccinated. Almost 2,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine shipped to California had to be returned because they had been stored in the trucks at temperatures below the required range.
The CDC has recommended priorities for who should receive the vaccines first, which are based on a health care industry dominated Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Each state can set its own priorities. California has a Drafting Guidelines Workgroup and a Community Vaccine Advisory Committee, which is charged with providing input on, among other things “equity.” For the first round of doses, health care organizations seem to have pretty much autonomy on who actually gets vaccinated. For example, physician residents at Stanford University hospital held a protest last week because only 7 of the 1000 residents who were actually caring for COVID patients were vaccinated, while higher level teaching staff, who didn’t have patient contact, were vaccinated instead.
Neither ACIP nor the CDC has recommended vaccinating people incarcerated in local, state or federal prisons or in immigration detention as a priority. California has begun administering COVID-19 vaccine to the “high risk” people incarcerated in the state’s prisons and to health care workers in the prison system. On December 22 the CHCF reportedly vaccinated a total of 65 employees and incarcerated people. 2400 people are incarcerated in the facility, and 150 are currently COVID positive. The state plans to include the women’s facility (Chowchilla) and the medical facility (Vacaville) in the early vaccine distribution. According to the LA Times, the prison system has received 18,600 doses of the Moderna vaccine and 3,259 of the Pfizer vaccine.
The corona virus has spike proteins on the outside of the virus which can latch onto a receptor on the human cell membrane on the outside of certain cells, particularly in the respiratory system. Once they have latched on and entered the cell, the human cell begins to create more of the virus, which is then released into the body. The goal of all COVID-19 vaccines is to get the body to recognize the spike protein and create antibodies to block the virus from binding to human cell receptors and trigger other immune responses.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the first human vaccines that directly inject messenger RNA (mRNA). mRNA is part of normal cellular processes. It generally brings genetic information from the DNA contained in the cell nucleus, to structures in the cytoplasm (the area inside the cell but outside the nucleus) that create proteins. These two vaccines contain the mRNA to create the corona virus spike protein directly. Because mRNA molecules are relatively easy to break apart, the vaccines also include lipid nanoparticles to protect the virus, and the vaccines are stored at very cold temperatures. The lipid particles also help the mRNA enter the cell, and it is hoped they will also reduce any unwanted immune reaction to the vaccine.
The AstraZenica/Oxford and the Johnson and Johnson/Janssen vaccines, which are still in clinical trials, (and reportedly the Russian and Chinese vaccines), use weakened or inactivated adenovirus, to carry DNA which contains the genetic code to manufacture the spike protein, into the cell. Once in the cell, mRNA is produced to make the spike protein. Because DNA is a more stable molecule, the vaccine is easier to distribute with regular refrigeration.
The intention of all the vaccines is to create the “spike protein” of SARS-CoV-2 (without the virus), so that a vaccinated person produces antibodies to block the receptors and prevent the coronavirus from entering the human cell. In response to the vaccine and the spike protein certain types of immune cells will also learn to recognize infected cells and inactivate the virus or destroy the cell.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have emergency use authorization (EUA) from the food and drugs administration (fda). It is expected that the clinical trials of the AstraZenica and J&J vaccines will conclude in early 2021, and if successful the companies will also seek an EUA from the fda. The fda has issued a lot of EUAs for COVID-19, including a number that it has had to withdraw. Most famously, on March 28 it authorized the use of trump’s beloved hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, antimalarial drugs that had no proven effect on COVID, and then revoked the EUA on June 15. It has also revoked emergency authorizations for medical devices, certain respirators, and antibody tests for COVID-19.
Generally clinical trials of new vaccines take years to conduct and evaluate. In this case, the phase 3 trial period (for safety and efficacy) was only about 3 months, which is not long enough to determine long-term effects. Maybe the COVID vaccines will provide long-term immunity, or maybe the immunity will wear off, and regular boosters will be required. Pharmaceutical manufacturer data, such as that used for the EUAs, often turns out to exaggerate good effects, and not include adverse effects which sometimes emerge later, as the drug is used more widely. So many people are wary of taking the vaccine while others are trying to become first in line. COVID-19 is a serious illness, that even kills people with access to medical care, and survivors may have long term organ damage.
A number of health care employers, and other employers, are either making COVID vaccination a condition of employment (when offered) or trying to get states to pass laws requiring vaccination. This follows almost two decades of agitation from health care employers for states to adopt flu vaccine mandates. Many health care systems also require workers to prove immunity to measles. Generally, health care workers and their unions support access to vaccines, but not mandates.
Vaccination has been a successful strategy against infectious disease and has saved many lives. If the u.s. and russia would destroy their existing germ warfare stockpiles of smallpox, the disease would be eradicated. Polio, which causes serious illness, including paralysis and death, has been eliminated in most countries, and before the COVID pandemic, and trump’s defunding of the world health organization, was on its way to eradication in the next few years. I was vaccinated three times against polio. I got measles with my older sister, but my younger sister was part of a trial of the measles vaccine. A few years later, our unvaccinated younger neighbor tragically died of measles.
Like everyone else I am sick of the pandemic, sick from capitalism, and trying not to be sick with COVID. Hopefully you are too.